Who knew there was a sequel to “The Magic Flute?”
This week, the Salzburg Festival in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s hometown opened its glittering doors to “Das Labyrinth,” whose twitty plot was the work of Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist-actor-impresario, who conjured up the adventures of Pamina and Tamino, Papageno and Papagena for Mozart in 1791.
Salzburg is hot again (literally sizzling in the upper 90s) as Alexander Pereira, 64, concludes his first season as artistic director.
In his last job, he catapulted the Zurich Opera into the center of European opera life, smoothly wheedling funds from bureaucrats and attracting a long list of smart directors and megastars like Cecilia Bartoli, the plane-phobic Italian diva who last thrilled crowds with Rossini’s “Otello.”
“My challenge is to make sure that Salzburg keeps its tradition as the leading opera, music and theater festival in the world,” Pereira told me. “Surely this is enough challenge for one small soul.”
We sat in his office above the main theater complex as crowds gathered below for evening performances. He was quick to smile and breezily conversant in English. It was easy to see how he seduced the good burghers of Zurich to become rabid operagoers.
In Zurich, Pereira produced a steady stream of new operas to attract subscribers. He plans to follow that model in Salzburg.
This summer, the new shows include not only “Das Labyrinth” but “The Magic Flute,” “Die Soldaten” and “Ariadne aux Naxos.”
Mozart’s “Flute” had a familiar man in the pit -- Nikolaus Harnoncourt led the Concentus Musicus Wien in an original-instruments version. The orchestra’s sound was warmly complementary and beautifully balanced.
Director Jens-Daniel Herzog and designer Mathis Neidhardt discarded the fantastical elements we’ve seen in productions by David Hockney and Julie Taymor. No fanciful dragon in the first scene for example; just a long, unthreatening green snake.
The production was set in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule, a former riding stable whose stony arches may be admired in “The Sound of Music” (not a musical ever staged in these more high- minded premises).
The tone of the show was austere, modern and, well, maybe post-ironic: a white tenor “blacked up” to play the conniving Moor Monostatos, and patronizing references to women were delivered without the usual conspiratorial wink to the audience.
Sarastro’s followers wore lab coats and the cultish leader himself was equipped with a bizarre flashing orange light, connected by a tube to the back of his head, to signify Sarastro’s solar power.
The production was beautifully sung, especially by Bernard Richter and Julia Kleiter as the lovebirds Tamino and Pamina.
“Das Labyrinth” was a different matter.
Determined to capitalize on the success of “Magic Flute,” Schikaneder commissioned the popular Munich composer Peter von Winter to write the sequel. It brought back all the leading characters as Monostatos joins forces with the Queen of the Night to sabotage Pamina’s marriage and get her out of Sarastro’s orbit.
After the successful premiere in 1798, the piece disappeared from the repertory and it’s easy to see why. Merely silly where Mozart was multilayered, mystical and moving, it’s like following “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Instead of referencing a minstrel show, this time Monostatos looked like a caricature from a racist cartoon.
Making matters worse was the Residenzhof, an outdoor venue where patrons paying 240 Euros ($300) get to sit on hard benches in hideous heat, some of us contorting painfully to read the supertitles.
Since the founding days with Max Reinhardt, Salzburg has presented plays as well, the most famous being Hugo von Hofmannthals’ “Jedermann,” brilliantly presented this season in another outdoor broiler.
Over the years, there’s been tension between the music and theater sides of the festival.
Pereira hired German-born director Sven-Eric Bechtolf to take over the theater program. He got a big hug at a garden party from festival president Helga Rabl-Stadler, who was resplendent in a brilliant red dress and a necklace of free-form multicolored glass.
A savvy businesswoman, economics journalist and politician, Rabl-Stadler is in her 18th season as president. When we sat down to talk in her office, theatrically decorated with colorful art, set designs and a portrait of Johann Strauss, she expressed relief at the arrival of Bechtolf.
“The artistic director gets jealous if the theater is successful,” she said. “The most stupid story is about Gerard Mortier and Peter Stein. It was Gerard who made Peter come, and it was Gerard who chased him away because he was so jealous of Stein, with his successful Shakespeare dramas.”
Bechtolf has invited major directors, including Irina Brook, who is staging “Peer Gynt” and “The Tempest.” He also runs the Young Directors Project, which brought in Gisele Vienne, the Paris-based director and choreographer, among others. (Notably absent: any American directors.)
She created “Eternelle Idole,” which took place in an indoor hockey rink.
A terrific young skater took the ice, where she was coached by a mysterious stranger, urged on by cheerleaders and joined by two hockey teams in full gear as a flying saucer landed in the fog-enshrouded rink as ominous music in the background.
It provided a refreshing sense of adventure in a festival that’s redefining itself while holding on to a tradition of excellence. Vienne’s second piece, “This Is How You Will Disappear,” was performed in a club theater and set in a forest worthy of the Brothers Grimm.
There was more fog, no cheerleading, desultory talk of rape and death, and some 90 minutes of ear-shattering music. This one was excruciating.
“I’m searching for an antidote to narrow, let’s say German deconstructionism,” Bechtolf told me, and later reiterated in a public conversation we held for festivalgoers. “I’m an old- fashioned type. I still believe in the actor, still believe in story.”
Pereira has already made his mark, increasing the festival production budget by 5 million euros ($6 million) and commissioning four new operas for the next four seasons. Box office sales for the 56 million euro ($70 million) festival are up 22 percent, he added.
“My predecessors probably wanted to do the same thing but they didn’t succeed for financial reasons,” he said. “I got the money together to guarantee that we will do this every year, for the first time in the history of the festival.” He is determined to increase Salzburg’s global profile.
To those who carp that the festival’s exorbitant ticket prices make it a place for the wealthy, he retorts that at least those wealthy patrons are dropping their cash on culture.
That said, not everything I saw was memorable. Simon Rattle led an uninspired “Carmen,” despite the charismatic presence of Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose. There was little fire in Magdalena Kozena’s Carmen. Aletta Collins’s staging was perfunctory at best, as were what seemed like deliberately drab settings by Miriam Buether.
The best thing I saw during a week of festival going was in the Grosses Festspielhaus, the big theater, where pianist Leif Ove Andsnes played a program of Beethoven sonatas, Chopin and Debussy with dazzling technique and subtle passion. I couldn’t have had a better sendoff.
The Salzburg Festival continues through Sept. 2. Information: http://www.salzburgerfestspiel.at.
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s NYC Weekend and a Lewis Lapham podcast.
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